Government sheds credibility with every vital service that collapses
From Eskom to education, public confidence in government is shattered - but what is worse is the absence of leadership
During our transition to democracy, political scientists used to talk about “confidence-building mechanisms”. These were essentially political devices to give ordinary citizens a sense of confidence in what was happening in the course of changing regimes from apartheid to democracy.
White citizens needed a sense of security – and here the primary device was the numerous public acts of reconciliation for which SA is still known around the world. Black citizens needed a sense of justice – and to this end a most impressive array of laws and policies were generated promising reconstruction and development. At the time the transition was bloody and the prospects for democracy far from assured. “Ready to govern” pronounced a pamphlet of the liberation movement turning itself into a political party.
The confidence of ordinary people was shattered this past week as the public utility Eskom launched the country into darkness, again. It was not simply the impact on students preparing for examinations or the economy’s dependence on reliable flows of energy – it was the devastating effects on public confidence in the government.
The airline, the Post Office, the rail system, the hospitals, the schools, the dams, the revenue services and home affairs – one crisis after the other as incompetence and corruption collapsed these vital services.
It is clear but nobody wants to say the obvious: This government does not have the competence and the capacity to govern effectively. When the lights go off from one day to the next, confidence in government dips.
What makes matters worse is the absence of leadership in the crisis. You wait in vain for the president to take to radio and television with the three simple messages that a good leader would convey in relation to almost any crisis. This is the nature of the problem; this is what we’re doing about it; and this is when we expect it to be over. That would at least start to rebuild public confidence. Yet after the load shedding of this past weekend, long-suffering citizens remain in the dark, so to speak.
Still reeling from the shock of the return of load shedding, the minister of higher education introduced another confidence-shattering policy that effectively lowers the bar for entry to degree studies at SA universities. What stands out in an otherwise complex proposal is that the minimum acceptable pass mark in the language of teaching and learning at the university (essentially English) is 30%, apart from a 30% pass mark in two subjects in the package of seven composing the National Senior Certificate. This is devastating news for an already broken education system for one simple reason: The low levels of reading literacy in the primary grades (we are last in the world by this measure of academic performance) is now carried through to higher education. Instead of raising the bar for language achievement, we lower it so that more and more students can suffer the illusion that they qualify for a bachelor’s degree.
Now no government can tell an autonomous university what its entry-level requirements for academic study should be. As a result, the top research universities like Wits and UCT will continue to set their own standards for entry to degree studies while their poorer cousins will bear the brunt of enrolment pressures from “30 percenters” in language competence. There is just one problem: About half the students who enter university drop out or fail in the first year and a minority attain their degrees in the minimum time. What this new policy means, therefore, is that higher failure and repetition rates will result with devastating consequences for students, their families, the universities and the economy. Public confidence in education will take yet another hit.
What should the government do to rebuild confidence in a shaken public? In relation to public entities, talk to the people, Mr President. Give them a sense that you have a grasp of our problems and that you are dealing with them and that there is a specified calendar for delivery.
In relation to education, announce for once a package of measures that will signal an increase in academic standards and how those standards will be attained. For example, announce that within five years 75% of all senior high school pupils will do mathematics and only 25% mathematical literacy. To get there, announce an intensive school-based mentorship intervention that uses experienced maths teachers to work directly with those in the weakest academic schools.
In other words, give ordinary people a reason to have confidence in our government again.